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Fans Are Ruining Game of Thrones—And Everything Else

How art and culture became captured by the logic of the consumer market

Helen Sloan/HBO

It was bound to end this way. Given its colossal success, cultural saturation, and the impossible expectations that come from being “event television,” the Game of Thrones finale was always going to be a contentious affair. The overwhelming response was disappointment—“the worst finale ever,” in this magazine’s howling formulation—but disappointment in season eight has taken on many forms, including what has now, nearly twenty years into the twenty-first century, become a familiar sight: the viral fan petition demanding a rewrite and a brand new season eight.

The petition, started only a few days ago, has well over a million signatures at the time of this writing, and is just the latest iteration in contemporary culture of fans reacting with anger to the perceived mistakes of writers, directors, and show runners. Social media has turned everyone into a critic, and it would be easy to fulminate against the apparent entitlement of a fan culture supercharged by the internet. Taking the long view of this phenomenon, however, it is not anything new—since the advent of technologies that eroded the space between artists and audiences, fans have always made their displeasure felt and sought to sway the direction of a given work. Arthur Conan Doyle famously brought back Sherlock Holmes from his plunge from Reichenbach Falls after audiences showed little comparable interest in his other, Holmes-less work.

Yet there is something worth paying attention to in this latest petition from fans keen to have a creative work made the way that they want it. The comments on the petition are instructive. Amidst the usual griping—the final season is “not Game of Thrones anymore,” it is “garbage,” a “slap in the face”—the most common sentiment is some variation on the disappointment caused by all that has been invested in the show. Fans invested their time (eight years!) and their energy (so many Sunday nights!) and their money (HBO isn’t free) supporting the show—and now they realize, to their mounting rage, that this investment has not paid off. The return has been less than what was expected.

Here then, it starts to become a little clearer what exactly is going on with these petitions. Back in the early 1990s, the American critic Fredric Jameson talked of the collapse in the perceived distinction between the economic and the cultural. As late as the 1960s, Jameson said, it was still possible to argue that the cultural occupied an autonomous space, outside of or in some way distinct from capitalism. But in an era of franchise entertainment and increasingly homogenized cultural production, where films and television and even books are judged as successes based on the money they bring in, such a space is increasingly unthinkable.

So it’s not a surprise that, as the economic and the cultural have become increasingly interlinked, these instances of fan protest have become more intense and more protracted. They reflect the ways in which it has become impossible to think of any popular culture outside the logic of capitalism. At the center of this matrix is a certain kind of consumer: the fan who is invested, both literally and figuratively, in the product cum work of art.

Culture has become a commodity that the audience is invited to purchase—and, given the way in which cultural objects are serialized, franchised, and spun off into expanded universes, the purchase is an ongoing investment. To entice a purchase what is needed is a stable, reliable commodity that promises a certain return. So studios and production companies focus-test and demand edits and revision if the commodity under production seems at risk of not making an adequate return.

The investment of fans is not just financial, of course. What is equally important (if not more so) is the emotional and libidinal investment of fans en masse. Here, pop culture can create not just economic ROI but a discourse around the product that turns investment into a kind of social necessity. A big enough group of fan-consumers can create more of the same just through sheer mass, as it becomes a cultural phenomenon that the individual has to buy into in order to participate within wider cultural discourses. Game of Thrones is the example par excellence of this dynamic, fostering FOMO in those who otherwise have no interest in medieval fantasy epics and forcing everyone to grudgingly familiarize themselves with the phrase “winter is coming.”

If you need a large demographic to invest into a specific pop-culture product, then this needs to be a stable commodity that not only brings in the buyer, but also continues to keep him happy. So when buyers do not get what they want (or were led to believe they could expect) all they can do is the equivalent of asking for a refund or exchange. After all, they didn’t get what they paid for, and the ideology of contemporary capitalism has made an axiomatic truth out of the customer always being right.

Thanks to this logic, the fan tends toward arrangements that are strangely literalist. The product is what it is, and can be only that—hence the complaint on the petition that the eighth season didn’t “feel like Game of Thrones,” which shows the extent to which the fan depends upon pop culture living up to its product description. This is, of course, entirely at odds with the endless interpretability of art and highlights the ways in which, even though the ethos of capitalism has sunk into the core of how we think about culture, there is still a moment in which it slips beyond the reach of the market. The dissatisfaction of the fans who sign these petitions signals the limits of the capitalist logic that seeks to be the frame in which every cultural engagement takes place.

What’s needed is a move away from the perpetually disappointed figure of the fan. Rather than see a given cultural text (or culture more generally) as reinforcing and satisfying a consumer/service-provider relationship, audiences must judge and engage with art outside of the logic of what they think they are owed. Pop culture doesn’t need fans—but it could use more fandom. At its best, fandom is a playful, participatory, and dialogic engagement with a work of art—exploring it, remaking it, rewriting it. Fandom tends not to see the text in dogmatic terms, but as a mutable creation that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Just as the fan was birthed by contemporary capitalism, so, too, was fandom, helped by the rise of networked technologies, message boards, listservs, Tumblr accounts, and much more besides. What we need, in other words, are fewer petitions and more fan fiction.

In fandom, we see the possibility and multiplicity that exist beyond the frustrations and dissatisfactions of consumers who feel like they didn’t get the right return on their investment. Abolish this canonical, consumer approach to pop culture, abolish the fan-consumer, and liberate pop culture from the stultifying logic of the service industry and market capitalism. Let’s not view culture as a product to own, but as a creative space in which to share something beyond price, profit, exchange, and loss.